Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sam Davies  has been dropping some good retro-related thoughts at his blog Zone Styx Travelcard:

"the past is a foreign country, and we are living under its occupation"

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"The persistence of love; the time of love. If you love something - really love it - do you want to stop loving it? Aren't there ways - perfectly natural, non-neurotic ways - of just wanting more and more 60s bebop, or 70s funk, or 80s metal, or 90s jungle. And feeling that new forms aren't just unlovably different but actively destructive of the love object (because often of course, that is precisely the polemic charge new forms come loaded with). You could think of it as musical monogamy - is it so deplorable?Again, the pace of technological change, as with each shift the new reconfigured medium reconditions the message, creating new forms and makiung new fossils of the old forms. (There's an instinctive understanding of how the medium is the message in the way that people resent and dread upgrades of social media & its user interfaces, the stifling effect of having to re-adjust even to minute changes in how your communiques, whether status updates, tweets, DMs, emails, texts, posts, are shaped). Looking back through the last two centuries is to witness an unprecedented compression of technological paradigms, a pressure crushing cultures flat to destructively create space for thrilling new forms, while the newly-old, the survivors of the previous paradigm, stagger around like peculiar living fossils, dazed by their sudden world-historical irrelevance."

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"Alex Williams once wrote of culture running out like a natural resource, but the problem in reality is very different, its chronic, almost insupportable overabundance. As Reynolds discusses, what seems to define 2001-2010 technologically is rather underwhelming: a technology which has 'mastered' not matter but culture. Interstellar space remains unconquered, unless you mean you want some Coltrane on MP3 and you want to download it out of the cloud in the middle of nowhere. And meanwhile music history just keeps on accumulating and accreting, not just because of the passing time and increased levels of output (home recording online distribution) but the ongoing excavation of its every corner.

The optimist view on this is celebratory. More of everything. No excess is absurd. And it rejects any suggestion that this plenitude might lead to a flat plane, and any negative reflections on glut/clotted music. Partly this is to do with a very strong cultural reflex towards the genre-transcendent. Music-writers are prone to getting excited about certain kinds of juxtaposition or hybridization. I remember reading with something bordering on disbelief a writer rhapsodizing over a footwork track that sampled The Lion Sleeps Tonight because - what a thing to sample! the writer was raving. Except it has been sampled, years ago by Shut Up & Dance's Rum & Black on either ESQ or Slave [it was Slave]. See also writers getting excited about auteurs that break genre rules, crossing Genre X with Genre Y: because it feels like you're hearing something at once a little bit transgressive, a little but sublime in its exceeding of borders; to mix X with Y puts artist and listener in a 'meta' space and promises a kind of procreated newness. It allows the listener to hear the words (and declare at the same time), My Mind is So Open! Oh, the Interconnectedness of All Things! 


But genres depend on the negative. The whole grammar of genre depends at least (if not more) on what the genre isn't as what it is. And the more densely populated the cultural context, the more bristling with sub genres and subdivisions, the harder it becomes for things to *signify* on the same scale. And again, to insist on the exceptional, common-sense defying conditions of the present era, it's not a crisis so banal as the old panic about finite notes, meaning finite melodies and finite songs; its rather a question of semiotics and space: space to make your mark. Imagine a crude binary of prog - punk, then imagine punk happening in a late 70s which was already heavily populated with bands already mining the fine gradations between Topographic Oceans and Ramones.

I used to think of this abominably vast and persistent cultural store as like Swift's Struldbruggs in Gulliver, - his thought exercise in careful-what-you-wish-for addressing eternal life. The Struldbruggs are immortal, but not immortally youthful, and so end up doomed to decline into eternal senility. This cultural situation is like a Struldbrugg in full possession of their faculties, with perfect recall, never sleeping, ever more frantically twitching with nervous exhaustion as their synapses fire and fire and fire
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